The Psychosis of Whiteness is a film essay analysing the movies Amistad, Belle, and Amazing Grace for how they create a false narrative around transatlantic slavery, in which white people are the central protagonists acting as saviours to agency-less black people, in order to propagate and perpetuate the myths and delusions around those historic crimes, and their continued affects through racism today, to a white audience.
Now. Here’s why those films are important. While some people may have seen more accurate depictions of slavery in films like 12 Year A Slave, or on tv like Roots, the first, biggest budget, and most widely promoted films are those three films. If you are new to the subject of slavery, either because you’re young, or because you’ve never been exposed, you are far more likely to have seen trailers for and ads to go see Belle and Amazing Grace, than you are to have been encouraged to see Roots. So it’s important that this is the message that is reaching people first, and creating their impressions of what slavery was about.
Secondly, it is important to reflect on these movies and ask ourselves why are we pouring so much money into telling this kind of story over and over again? What purpose does it serve? And what are its effects?
There is also then tendency to dismiss criticism of historical films for inaccuracy. By virtue of being a recreation, people expect historical films to be inaccurate, and are mostly just going along for the story. No one cares if it is a button or a popper on the guy’s lapel in Peaky Blinders, even though one would be historically inaccurate, why should they care about this? Well, because it’s not about inaccuracies in dress or location or set design that we’re talking about. We’re talking about racist propaganda being given millions of pounds to be spread as widely as possible. And that matters.
So what do Amistad, Belle, and Amazing Grace have in common? They all focus on court or governmental procedures relating to slavery in which abolition is billed as the end point of victory. They all focus on white protagonists in a largely white cast, where black people are represented as being ‘done to’ and helpless. The black actors are frequently silent, unintelligible, or in the case of Amazing Grace, spending just under 1 and half minutes speaking out of the 2 hour runtime. The eventual victory of the films’ heroes is seen as a full-stop, in which racism and the exploitation of black people becomes a thing of the past.
They are also largely fictional. Even when they cherrypick an exceptional case, like that in Amistad, where the court ruled in the favour of slaves, they still have to alter the substance of the arguments to be moral condemnations of slavery, as opposed to what was actually put forth, which was a very technical matter of law. The case of the Amistad was not an argument against slavery, nor did it lead to abolition as the film implies, as slavery continued for another half century in the US.
In Belle, the decision to rule in favour of an insurance company over the captain of a slave ship is depicted as pivotal in acknowledging the humanity of black people and valuing their lives, again supposedly laying the foundation for abolition. Truth is it was a ruling entirely in keeping with the status quo, a decision that made the continuance of slavery easier, and contrarily, had the opposite happened, and the decision been found for the ship’s captain, it would have actually thrown more of a wrench into the workings of slavery.
In Amazing Grace, the British Parliament passes legislation to abolish the transatlantic slave trade, supposedly due to the efforts of one man, William Wilberforce. No mention is made of the historical context in which this change took place, where Britain was essentially getting squeezed out a market America was better at, that the Haitian Revolution had made slavery in the British West Indian colonies a much greater financial risk, nor that the slaveowners were compensated in the biggest government payout to a civilian endeavour ever in its history, while slaves themselves were given nada. Nor is any mention made of the fact they are sitting surrounded by the wealth that the slave trade has made them, and they’re just going to keep that, thank you very much.
In all three movies, black people are passive observers in a drama about white people’s consciences. The violence against them is minimised, either taking place in brief flashbacks, again emphasising their place in the past, or happens not at all. They are not shown as central, active in their fight for their freedom, or leading the charge against slavery, or even speaking at all much of the time. They are props in a story about whiteness to a white audience. Their pain and oppression is merely the playground in which the white protagonist can play saviour.
While it is easy to dismiss Amistad, Belle, Amazing Grace as three crap films that don’t get it right, it is important to note that these are the stories being promoted. They are not all accidentally identically inaccurate in a racist way, they are deliberately created and promoted because they are the story a white audience wants to hear about itself.
Time for them to stop getting what they want.